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People Who Don’t Believe In God Outnumber Atheists More Than 2 To 1 In New York

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has an interesting new report out this week. It updates a 2007 survey the organization did to try to measure the relative numbers of people with different beliefs about religion and religious identity.

I’ll be writing some more about the results of the new report in the coming days, but this afternoon, there’s one particular item from the study that I want to focus on, because it gets to the question of what the report describes. It gets to that question, but it doesn’t answer it.

Here’s the item I’m talking about: In the state-level breakouts of religious identification, the Pew report says that 5 percent of people in the state of New York are atheists. On the other hand, the same section of the report says that 12 percent of people in the state of New York don’t believe in God.

The thing is, an atheist is a person who doesn’t believe in God.

This is the question that this item provokes: How can there be more than twice the number of people who don’t believe in God than there are atheists?

One possible answer among many is that to declare oneself an “atheist” is a statement of positive identity, involving more than just lack of belief in God. Perhaps there are aspects of being “atheist” besides not believing in God that many New Yorkers don’t want to associate themselves with.

If this is the case, it suggests that there are many ways of not believing in God, and that being “atheist” is just one of them – a minority identity among people who don’t believe in God.

That’s just one interpretation, however. Can you think of another?

25 thoughts on “People Who Don’t Believe In God Outnumber Atheists More Than 2 To 1 In New York”

  1. Larry says:


    Very poor wording of polling questions.

    Especially in longer surveys that aren’t simplistic.

    (Note that I have not seen this particular survey)

    I could see where many people, as an example, might confuse “God” with meaning strictly the Christian “God”; so while they might classify themselves as “Spiritual But Not Specific Religious”, they don’t believe in “Jehovah” – or the Christian God – so respond that they don’t believe in God.

    (An atheist believes in NO Afterlife or Higher Power, a god, God’s, or otherwise… now compare that to a strict Deist)

    I would question WHY that they would have those two questions (worded as such) in the SAME survey.

    Often when trying to do too much in one survey you end up actually doing very little – in loss of accuracy and muddled up results!

  2. Jim Cook says:

    I can think of another reason: many people who don’t believe in a deity nevertheless adhere to a religion, for reasons other than the supernatural (great potlucks, business networking, social pressure).

    1. J Clifford says:

      Yes, but does that make them not atheists? Maybe in a cultural sense, an “atheist” is thought of as not just a person who rejects the idea of God, but also rejects everything associated with that idea.

    2. Larry says:

      Actually, there are a huge number (possibly 75 million) of Christians who are classified as “Unchurched”.

      Apparently the potluck suppers, business networks, and social pressure mean nothing to them.

      “Unchurched” (alternatively, “The Unchurched” or “unchurched people”) means, in the broad sense, people who are not routinely connected with a church of their faith (in this case Christianity). In research on religious participation, it refers more specifically to people who do not attend worship services at a specific Christian church where they are nominal members. (USA Today, 2008)

      The Barna Group defines the term to mean “an adult (18 or older) who has not attended a Christian church service within the past six months” excluding special services such as Easter, Christmas, weddings or funerals. Barna reports that there were 75 million “unchurched people” in the United States as of 2004.

      ““Unchurched people are not just lazy or uniformed,” the researcher continued. “They are wholly disinterested in church life – often passionately so. Stirring worship music won’t attract them because worship isn’t even on their radar screen. More comfortable pews cannot compete with the easy chair or the bed that already serve the unchurched person well. Church events cannot effectively compete… “.

      Barna noted that the millions of young unchurched have no understanding of or interest in a church, even if it is “contemporary” in style.

      “Millions of young adults (nominally Christian) are more interested in truth, authenticity, experiences, relationships and spirituality than they are in laws, traditions, events, disciplines, institutions and religion. The confluence of preconceived notions, past experiences and evolving lifestyles and values means that existing churches simply cannot reach millions of today’s unchurched people.”

  3. Dave says:

    I think your guess is about right, Rowan. It’s mixed up polling questions. Or could one of the questions have been: “On a scale of one to ten…”?

    1. Larry says:


      Were you referencing my Comment?

    2. Larry says:



      I misread the posting.

  4. Mark says:

    I think that for many Americans (especially evangelical Christians) being an atheist equates to a militant anti-religious ideology. I suspect that all those individuals who professed that they do not believe in God do not want to be labeled as atheists (by others or even in their own minds) because they do not want the associated connotations that many (if not most) Americans connect with the term ‘atheist’. It might not even be a conscious choice on their part because they really don’t think or care much about religion. They’re content simply ignoring the entire issue and living their lives in peace (oblivion). They don’t care about all the influence religion has on our society and they don’t want to be part of any sort of conflict. Labeling themselves as ‘atheist’ draws them into the conflict, so they simply label themselves with the less confrontational term ‘non-believer’.

    1. Larry says:


      I can see that to a limited extent.

      One problem with that is that the more militant / fanatic / fundamentalist Christian is the one who sees an atheist being a “militant anti religious ideology””, not necessarily the Non Believer. So by that very definition it would be fundamentalist type Christians who make that differentiation – not the Non Believer.

      The other problem is when referencing “all”. I absolutely believe that SOME do indeed process their survey as you indicated, but can’t believe that it was “all”.

      In fact, one of the reasons that I specified the response that I did was the very fact that every survey that I have taken (or form filled out for other reason) that specified “Religion” with choices given to check almost always (if not always – and I have done LOTS of these, I must fit some demographic for surveys) contains the choice “Spiritual But Not Religious” (*) And to me, that interprets as NOT being an atheist, but also not believing in “God” (or Yahweh or Jehovah or Allah or Shiva or Vishnu or Odin or Zeus or Jupiter or Amenominakanushi or Tian). Then there are agnostics – and religions that are current today (in significant numbers) that have multiple gods such as Shintoism and Hinduism (the world’s third largest religion) and one major religion that has NO God’s, being a nontheistic religion (Buddhism… Taoism would also fit as being nontheistic however is difficult to position as it is a philosophy that is practiced as a religion, often combined with Buddhism, by a couple hundred million Asians).

      (*) I would admit however in the last 3-4 years that this phrase is being replaced more and more with the “catch all phrase” of “Irreligious” or “Unaffiliated” or even “Irreligious or Unaffiliated”… usually accompanied by “Other” and “None”. I believe that Other (in American surveys) is to accommodate the rising populations of Hindus, Buddhists, etcetera.

      There are also some interesting definitions and other information on this subject – for a follow-up post.

    2. Larry says:

      This was from a Faith Street article, which referenced a Washington Post article (which referenced a 2012 PEW Survey):

      “More than 13 million atheists and agnostics and nearly 33 million claim no particular affiliation. About 20 percent of U.S. adults say they had no religious affiliation, an increase from two decades ago when about 8 percent of people were deemed so-called “nones,according to a new study released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. The group will be the subject of an upcoming PBS miniseries this month.

      ‘But despite their nickname, the “nones” are far from godless. Many pray, believe in God and have regular spiritual routines,’ The Washington Post’s religion reporter Michelle Boorstein wrote Tuesday.

      About 37 percent of the religiously unaffiliated say they’re spiritual but not religious.

      From 2007-2012, the so-called ‘nones’ have risen from just over 15 percent to just under 20 percent of all U.S. adults.”

    3. Larry says:

      Culled from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, a 2012 Pew Survey, the 2014 General Sociological Survey, and the earlier May 2015 Pew Survey:

      “Unaffiliated Americans are sometimes referred to as ‘Nones’. Though having no religion and not seeking religion they have diverse views: 68% believe in God, 12% are atheists, 17% are agnostics; 18% consider themselves religious, 37% consider themselves as spiritual but not religious, and 42% considers themselves as neither spiritual or religious; and 21% pray every day and 24% pray once a month.

      According to Pew Research Center, in 2014, 22.8% of the American population does not identify with a religion, including atheists (3.1%) and agnostics (4%).

      According to the 2014 General Sociological Survey, 21% of the American population does not identify with a religion; furthermore, the number of atheists and agnostics in the U.S. has remained relatively flat in the past 23 years. In 1991, only 2% identified as atheist, and 4% identified as agnostic. In 2014, only 3% identified as atheists, and 5% identified as agnostics.”

      It is interesting that in their separate article specifically covering “Religion and the Unaffiliated” (from this most recent survey) that Pew does address “Spiritual But Not Religious”:

      “At the same time, the unaffiliated are not wholly secular. Substantial portions of the unaffiliated – particularly among those who describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular’ – say they believe in God or a universal spirit (*). And while 42% of the unaffiliated describe themselves as neither a religious nor a spiritual person, 18% say they are a religious person, and 37% say they are spiritual but not religious… ”

      (*) In my opinion, that latter designation is an important one as it specifies no specific entity / deity.

    4. Larry says:

      I think that this is an interesting perspective of “militant disbelief” (explicit atheism):

      “When characterized as hostility towards religion, it encompasses anticlericalism, antireligion, and antitheism… ”

      But that describes just that one element of a very large category of “Non Believers” (which is unfortunate terminology as a good size majority of that group DOES believe).

      1. J Clifford says:

        Believe what?!? A good size number of Christians are non-believers. They don’t believe in biological evolution through natural selection.

        1. Larry says:

          Non Believers in the sense as would be applied by survey-takers and pollsters. Non Believers as generally refers to any specific Faith and specifically as to Christianity in some very narrow polls.

          THAT is the (main) topic here. The explanation of specific answers on a specific poll that refers to RELIGIOUS beliefs of a large survey group… and not the personal beliefs of J. Clifford wherein all non atheists apparently become “non believers”.

          Your “point” would have merit (maybe) if this article was about the idiocy of people who have any kind of faith and are too stupid to believe in evolution.

  5. Larry says:

    I would believe that this is the survey that this article refers to.

    “Pew Research Center surveys consistently show that not all religious “nones” are nonbelievers. In fact, the majority of Americans without a religious affiliation say they believe in God… ” (Not specifying however what is defined as “God”)

    1. Larry says:

      That is actually the second part of the survey (done earlier this year by Pew). The first part is here:

  6. Larry says:

    Interesting side notes:

    In various studies of “Irreligious Americans”, it was found:

    “A comprehensive study by David Campbell and Harvard University professor Robert Putnam found theligious Americans who regularly attend religious services but have no friends there do not have higher levels of civ found that religious Americans are less tolerant than secular Americans of free speech, dissent, and several other measures of tolerance”

    “Being less religious is moderately correlated with increased life expectancy and decreased teenage pregnancy”.(2009 Gallup Poll)

    Alan Cooperman of Pew Research Center notes that nonreligious Americans commonly grew up in a religious tradition and consciously lost it “after a great deal of reflection and study”. As a result, atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religion than those who identify with most major religions, according to a 2010 Pew survey.

  7. Larry says:

    The definitions of the various “non believers” or “non religious” is interesting.

    Obviously there are personal interpretations, but in an overall sense, these are pretty much the considered definitions as would be considered by “experts”:

    “Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is the absence of belief that any deities exist. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists…”

    “Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether or not God, the divine or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable… ”

    “Strong agnosticism (also called ‘hard’, ‘closed’, ‘strict’, or ‘permanent agnosticism’)
    In this form, the view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities, and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. A strong agnostic would say, ‘I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you.’… Weak agnosticism (also called ‘soft’, ‘open’, ’empirical’, or ‘temporal agnosticism’)
    The view that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable; therefore, one will withhold judgment until evidence, if any, becomes available. A weak agnostic would say, ‘I don’t know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day, if there is evidence, we can find something out.’… ”

    ” ‘Spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR) is a popular phrase used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that rejects traditional organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. The term is used world-wide, but is most prominent in the United States where one study reports that as many as 33% of people identify as spiritual but not religious. (2013 Gallup Poll)”

    “Younger people are more likely to identify as SBNR than older people. In April 2010, the front page of USA Today claimed that 72% percent of Generation Y agree they are “more spiritual than religious” (LifeWay Researcch survey 2010).

    Those who identify as SBNR vary in their individual spiritual philosophies and practices and theological references, referencing some higher power or transcendent nature of reality, without belonging to a religious affiliation. In the USA most SBNR people without a religious affiliation believe in God. (WIN – Gallop poll 2012).

    “Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion. Gradually, the word spiritual came to be associated with the private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in a religious institution with official denominational doctrines.”

    “One possible differentiation among the three constructs religion, religiosity, and spirituality, is to view religion as primarily a social phenomenon while understanding spirituality on an individual level.[23] Religiosity is generally viewed as being rooted in religion, whereas this is not necessarily the case for spirituality. A study of the differences between those self-identified as spiritual and those self-identified as religious found that the former have a loving, forgiving, and nonjudgmental view of the numinous, while those identifying themselves as religious see their god as more judgmental… Both theistic and atheistic camps have criticized this development.”

    “Deism, derived from the Latin word “Deus” meaning “God”, is a theological/philosophical position that combines the rejection of revelation and authority as a source of religious knowledge with the conclusion that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe.” (Citing several encyclopedias articles)

    “Deism gained prominence among intellectuals during the Age of Enlightenment—especially in Britain, France, Germany and the United States—who, raised as Christians, believed in one God but became disenchanted with organized religion and notions such as the Trinity, Biblical inerrancy and the supernatural interpretation of events such as miracles.”

    “Today, deism is considered to exist in two principal forms: classical and modern where the classical view takes what is called a “cold” approach by asserting the non-intervention of deity in the natural behavior of the created universe while the modern deist formulation can be either “warm” (citing an involved deity) or cold, non-interventionist creator. These lead to many subdivisions of modern deism which tends, therefore, to serve as an overall category of belief. Despite this classification of Deism today, classical Deists themselves rarely wrote or accepted that the Creator is a non-interventionist during the flowering of Deism in the 16th and 17th centuries… “

    1. Larry says:

      Early Deistic Thought:

      “Sir Leslie Stephen’s ‘English Thought in the Eighteenth Century’ describes the core of deism as consisting of “critical” and Deism’s constructional elements:

      Critical elements of deist thought included:

      – Rejection of religions that are based on books that claim to contain the revealed word of God.
      – Rejection of religious dogma and demagogy.
      – Skepticism of reports of miracles, prophecies and religious “mysteries”.

      Constructional elements of deist thought included:

      – God exists and created the universe.
      – God gave humans the ability to reason.

      Individual deists varied in the set of critical and constructive elements for which they argued.

      Some deists rejected miracles and prophecies but still considered themselves Christians because they believed in what they felt to be the pure, original form of Christianity – that is, Christianity as it supposedly existed before it was corrupted by additions of such superstitions as miracles, prophecies, and the doctrine of the Trinity.

      Some deists rejected the claim of Jesus’ divinity but continued to hold him in high regard as a moral teacher (see, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s famous ‘Jefferson Bible’ and Matthew Tindal’s ‘Christianity as Old as the Creation’).

      “Other, more radical deists rejected Christianity altogether and expressed hostility toward Christianity, which they regarded as pure superstition.”
      (Note that the terms constructive and critical are used to refer to aspects of deistic thought, not sects or subtypes of deism)

      Other Deists (see for instance Matthew Tindal’s ‘Christianity as Old as the Creation’ and Thomas Paine’s ‘The Age of Reason’) saw the religions of their day as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They felt that this original pure religion had become corrupted by “priests” who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general.” (See especially “The Age of Reason”.

      According to this world view, over time “priests” had succeeded in encrusting the original simple, rational religion with all kinds of superstitions and “mysteries” – irrational theological doctrines. Laymen were told by the priests that only the priests really knew what was necessary for salvation and that laymen must accept the “mysteries” on faith and on the priests’ authority. This kept the laity baffled by the nonsensical “mysteries”, confused, and dependent on the priests for information about the requirements for salvation. The priests consequently enjoyed a position of considerable power over the laity, which they strove to maintain and increase. Deists referred to this kind of manipulation of religious doctrine as “priestcraft”, a highly derogatory term.

      “Classical deism held that a human’s relationship with God was impersonal: God created the world and set it in motion but does not actively intervene in individual human affairs but rather through divine providence. What this means is that God will give humanity such things as reason and compassion but this applies to all and not to individual intervention.”

      1. Larry says:

        – Beliefs about immortality of the soul

        Deists hold a variety of beliefs about the soul.

        Some, such as Lord Herbert of Cherbury and William Wollaston, held that souls exist, survive death, and in the afterlife are rewarded or punished by God for their behavior in life.

        Some, such as Thomas Paine, had definitive beliefs about the immortality of the soul:

        ‘I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.’ (By Thomas Paine, “The Age of Reason, Part I”).

        ‘I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter than that I should have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began.’ (By Thomas Paine, “The Age of Reason, Part I, Recapitulation”)

        – Contemporary deist opinions on prayer

        Many classical deists were critical of some types of prayer. For example, in Christianity as Old as the Creation, Matthew Tindal argues against praying for miracles, but advocates prayer as both a human duty and a human need.

        Today, deists hold a variety of opinions about prayer:

        Some contemporary deists believe (with the classical deists) that God has created the universe perfectly, so no amount of supplication, request, or begging can change the fundamental nature of the universe.

        Some deists believe that God is not an entity that can be contacted by human beings through petitions for relief; rather, God can only be experienced through the nature of the universe.

        Some deists do not believe in divine intervention, but still find value in prayer as a form of meditation, self-cleansing, and spiritual renewal. Such prayers are often appreciative (that is, “Thank you for …”) rather than supplicative (that is, “Please, God, grant me …”).

        Some deists practice meditation and make frequent use of Affirmative Prayer, a non-supplicative form of prayer…

  8. Larry says:

    Modern DeistIc Thought:

    “Some Contemporary deism attempts to integrate classical deism with modern philosophy and the current state of scientific knowledge. This attempt has produced a wide variety of personal beliefs under the broad classification of belief of ‘deism’… ”

    “Some modern deists have modified this classical view and believe that humanity’s relationship with God is transpersonal, which means that God transcends the personal / impersonal duality and moves beyond such human terms.

    Also, this means that it makes no sense to state that God intervenes or does not intervene, as that is a human characteristic which God does not contain. Modern deists believe that they must continue what the classical deists started and continue to use modern human knowledge to come to understand God, which in turn is why a human-like God that can lead to numerous contradictions and inconsistencies is no longer believed in and has been replaced with a much more abstract conception.”

    1. Dave says:

      Are you sure you’re not Leroy from Jim Cook’s Oct 24 post on Protestant Racial Bias? Jus’wundrin.

      1. Larry says:

        Are you sure you’re not Milne?

        Just a thought.

        LOL, that was for Leroy’s benefit.

        (Doesn’t Leroy use info transfer with a lot of links – like a whole lot? I prefer to copy and paste or paraphrase the info and let people do their own research if disbelieving for most part. Apparently there’s some type of problem or was with multiple links us more than one link automatically goes to moderation. Different strokes… Not to say that there’s no connection though – or that there is).

  9. Korky Day says:

    How many people support feminism?
    Then ask them if they disagree with discrimination against females.
    You’ll get many more for the 2nd group.

  10. Larry says:


    Most likely cause is poor wording or question(s) – or same response asked for in more than one (differently worded) question.

    And then if survey preparer doesn’t understand differences in certain technologies….

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